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Editor’s blog – Failure to address the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ could bring about the collapse of the European project

By Dean Carroll

It is hard to tell whether the European Union has yet reached its nadir but the protests and strikes across a number of member states in recent years, not to mention the perennial stalemate on the EU budget and debt mutualisation, suggest the lowest point cannot be far away. Due partly to the EU’s democratic deficit – which academics have been fascinated by but politicians have decided to ignore because the problem is considered ‘too difficult to solve’ – Euroscepticism is spreading across the continent and nationalist parties are on the rise.

Of course, even if the EU had the appropriate accountability chains in place – people would still be angry over austerity measures and the inequality that has come to dominate society; with elites insulated from the pain suffered by the masses. But a fully accountable EU must address the democratic deficit if it is ever to get public support and expand further – to the south and east – especially, to Turkey. Only then can it eschew the introverted institutional wrangling that has created the current policy impasse. The leadership vacuum is not sustainable if we are to navigate a way out of the economic malaise.

Without some radical thinking, the supranational body has little hope of remaining a global actor. European harmonisation started with economic integration. Now the cultural and political elements must be addressed too – or the whole European project will suffer continued paralysis. These concerns must be addressed to get overwhelming public support for continued ‘widening and deepening’ unless political leaders are willing to turn their backs completely on the union, which seems unlikely despite the current problems.

The citizenry’s perception of the EU is as a polity of elite technocratic experts. Some argue that the union amounts to little more than a cartel rather than a political entity with clear linkages to citizens, based on effective elections. The defence often given for the status quo is that the union’s plural executive, budget constraints and limited policy mandates justify a disconnect from the ballot box. Sorry, that is just not good enough anymore. This definition of the EU as no more than a glorified customs union is dangerous and outdated when globalisation of economics calls for a globalised vision of politics too – from European leaders. Today’s rampant Euroscepticism reflect this in the most granular way.

Greater powers for the European Parliament are also needed to establish its credibility and legitimacy in order to aid the creation of a ‘European citizen’ identity. A sense of public space must appear through enhanced chains of accountability, which capitalise on the fact that fear of loss of national identity in nation states is usually overwhelmed by more substantial positive notions of the possible trade and employment opportunities of EU membership.

We have seen from history that European democracy and civil liberty are powerful forces for change. And now the remote EU is at much greater risk from external threats should it fail to engage citizens in a public debate about the true value of its existence – as the post-war ‘permissive consensus’ ends. As the esteemed academic Dimitris Chryssochoou puts it: “The starting point is that without a European demos there can be no European democracy and at the heart of the EU’s democratic deficit lies the absence of a civic we-ness – that is, a sense of common identity among Europeans.”

The rot must stop and enhanced electoral linkages should be built into the EU, if traumas like the recent economic crisis are to be averted in future and party identification is to be created in the European Parliament. It is time for the union to shape and engage with public opinion, rather than wait for the demos to catch up – which could take many decades if let to grow organically without some prompting from supranational institutions.

The alternative is to allow public anger to build up to such a pressure point that it threatens to force the very collapse of the EU itself. During the good times and economic boom, citizens are willing to tolerate the European project. During the bad times and economic bust, they use it for target practice – due to its unaccountable nature. Take note Brussels.

Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review. Follow him on Twitter @poljourno and follow Policy Review @Policyrev

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